The 35-day government shutdown was not kind to America’s national parks: They were understaffed, crowded with visitors, and in some cases, badly damaged. Although the government has reopened and park rangers are back on duty, it appears that the trouble isn’t over. According to a letter obtained by The Hill on Friday, Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt authorized parks across the country to use more than $252.9 million in “unobligated” funds to pay employees during the shutdown and respond to the crush of visitors. That money was supposed to be used for badly-needed park maintenance and enhancement, and the drain on the fund could cause major issues for parks down the road.
According to Pacific Standard, the money comes from recreation fees—the fees charged to visitors at each park—and is collected under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA). The NPS uses this money for major improvements, such as replacing an entrance station in Yellowstone or upgrading a parking lot at Muir Woods National Monument in California. During the shutdown, the parks couldn’t collect the fees and lost $10 to $14 million in revenue as a result. Considering that the NPS is already burdened with $11.6 billion (that’s billion with a b) in deferred maintenance, the drain on FLREA dollars is especially concerning. It has been a vital source of money to keep the parks in good shape and address pressing maintenance issues.
“These projects can maybe go forward still,” Emily Douce, Director of Budget and Appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association‘s government affairs team, told Pacific Standard. “But if you’re taking fee dollars and spending them to do what should have been paid for by Congress to clean up trash and to clean the bathrooms, that’s going to have an impact on these projects down the road.”
The Hill reports that over 100 parks dipped into the funds to cover basic operations costs during the shutdown, including Grand Canyon, Glacier, Bryce Canyon, and Zion national parks. The Senate is currently investigating the legality of Bernhardt’s decision to use the money.